What I will say about Aquarius, the latest film from Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, is that it is an absorbing, detailed and considerate character study of its female protagonist – and more, that protagonist happens to be a woman in her mid-sixties. There really isn’t enough major roles or stories on offer for actresses of that age so, for that alone, Aquarius deserves our praise.
Equally deserving of praise is Sônia Braga who grabs the central role of ‘Dona Clara’, the retired music critic, widow, cancer survivor and mother, and runs with it to deliver a wonderful and complex, multi-faceted performance that propels an otherwise leisurely paced production that comes in at almost two and a half hours. It’s an incredible, career defining turn that really deserved all the recognition possible during the awards season. That it didn’t is nothing short of shameful and once again proves how blinkered the Academy is towards foreign language productions.
Unfortunately, I just wish I could say more positives about Aquarius for, despite the near unanimous praise Kleber Mendonça Filho’s has been receiving since its release, it is something that left me feeling a little cold. It also proved to me that I don’t really care for Brazilian music.
Braga’s Clara lives in Recife on the coast of North Eastern Brazil, in a luxurious apartment that overlooks the beautiful Boa Viagem beach. Her apartment block, the titular ‘Aquarius’, is an elegant structure built in the mid twentieth century. Carla has lived there some time – long enough to raise her three children and watch them fly the nest, to grow ever more distant from each other – having inherited it from her beloved and inspirational Aunt Lucia (played by Thaia Perez in a 1980-set opening sequence and whose very appearance the similar aged present day Clara seems to have replicated). Right from the off, we get a sense that Clara, the sophisticated, mature non-conformist who can boast both privilege and wealth associated deeply with her home. Her apartment in ‘Aquarius’ isn’t just any old apartment to Clara, it is who she is. It is a tangible, bricks and mortar representation of her life, her standing and just what she has achieved.
The apartment block is also – as her daughter calls it at one stage – ‘a ghost building’ because Clara is the last remaining resident; the other occupants having long since vacated and sold their property to a local construction company to redevelop as they see fit. Her daughter’s choice of words will prove to be telling, as the block is not only ghostly because it lies otherwise empty, but because it is also populated by the ghosts of Clara’s life there; be it in the various mementos and the stacks of lovingly preserved vinyl that line the walls, or in the visions Clara will ultimately come to witness. It’s clear that the construction company, represented by a convincing Humberto Carrão as Diego, the all too earnestly charming young graduate architect, would very much like to possess Clara’s apartment so they can demolish it in line with the encroaching gentrification and modernisation of the area. To that end, a series of mouthwatering offers are literally laid at Clara’s door which she firmly and resolutely turns down flat.
This becomes the central plot of Aquarius, as Clara takes a defiant stand against the company, even as they turn to more underhand methods of intimidation and harassment to get their own way, and against her own children who, worried about her situation and her health but also perhaps with an eye to their own inheritance, advise her to sell up for a quiet life. Alone in her endeavours, Clara digs her heels in and experiences at first hand the way society has changed seemingly right under her nose.
Though Aquarius tackles an interesting and politically topical story its narrative carries itself unhurriedly, in and out like the lapping tides on Boa Viagem beach itself. Kleber Mendonça Filho seems less interested in delivering a driving narrative and more concerned with a character study of his heroine, so it’s just as well that Braga’s character Clara is so damn interesting and so well played. Whether Clara’s actually wholly likeable or not is perhaps open to debate, but that in itself is interesting because it’s seldom that a film dares to conjure up an utterly human protagonist whose strengths and flaws can bring about conflicting emotions in an audience.
There’s a haughty, snobbish and unpleasant side to Clara that is sometimes hard to swallow. She is accustomed to her privilege, which means she has a habit of treating servants as less than people. In one key scene, she regales her family and friends with tales of a black maid her family once employed who was found to be stealing jewellery and crudely dismisses her as a “c**t” for doing so. The words of one of her guests, spoken in the understanding of why such a seemingly loyal servant may steal from their wealthy employers, seem to have no effect on Carla. Later, when showing family photographs, her present and loyal retainer Ladjane is compelled to show a photo of her own son to the stunned and awkward silence of Carla and her family. Braga’s face in that scene, a mixture of pain, embarrassment and contempt to see her maid speak out of turn, is a picture. It’s also somehow hard to sympathise with Carla’s stance against the developers when she openly admits to owning five apartments and having wealth considerable enough to bail out any of her three children, and when the aggrieved son of a former resident of the block confronts Carla on the street to complain that her obstinacy means his family haven’t seen a penny from the deal his father made to sell his apartment, it’s hard not to view her as selfish.
The contradictions at the heart of Clara’s character are never more affectingly portrayed than in her sexuality. Braga plays her as a deeply sensual person with a natural grace and beauty that hasn’t faded with age. However, the loss of a breast from cancer means that Clara now finds herself deeply uneasy and all too self-conscious about how her own body looks beneath her clothes. As one scene at a nightclub shows, she finds it easy to pick up men, but they are repulsed by her surgery. As her struggle with the developers continues, she stumbles across one apartment being used as a location to an amateur porn shoot one evening. This sordid stunt could perhaps rub Clara’s nose in her sexual inactivity, but surprisingly it propels her into hiring a gigolo her friend had enthused about on their night out at the club.
However, for all Clara’s complexities, it’s clear that the audience is meant to see the construction company as the real villains of the piece, especially in the developments at the latter stages of the film that do admittedly feel perhaps a little contrived and crowbarred to ensure resolution. If Carla’s apartment serves as a metaphor for her own life, then it is these developers who perhaps serve as a political metaphor for Brazil itself, and the director pulls no punches in condemning their tendency to corruption in achieving their desires, even if there’s a feeling that we’ve seen it all before and better handled elsewhere. Ultimately the overall message of Aquarius is perhaps that of how embracing change may not always be the right way forward, and that there is merit in hanging on to beliefs, a way of life or even just material things that others may dismiss as old and no longer of value. I’m just left to wonder if it couldn’t deliver that same message with a more punchier narrative overall.